Tag Archives: economics

Fish to live or live to fish?

A lovely story that I have heard many times in different incarnations (nationalities and personalities differed slightly) has been doing the rounds on blogs again lately, perhaps as a criticism of the capitalist economic model:

An American investment banker was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellow fin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.

The fisherman replied, only a little while.

The American then asked why didn’t he stay out longer and catch more fish?

The Mexican said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs.

The American then asked, “but what do you do with the rest of your time?”

The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siesta with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos, I have a full and busy life.”

The American scoffed, “I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat with the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats, eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually NYC where you will run your expanding enterprise.”

The Mexican fisherman asked, “But, how long will this all take?”

To which the American replied, “15-20 years.” “But what then?”

The American laughed and said that’s the best part. “When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions.”

“Millions.. Then what?”

The American said, “Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”

But the truth is that some of us are driven by the money,  power and status symbols, and perhaps only regret life passing us by when it is too late.  What is also true, however, is that some of us love our work so much that we would do it even if we weren’t paid for it.  In fact, some of us subsidise our ‘real’ work by doing other, lesser work – so we actually ‘pay’ to be allowed to do the work we feel passionate about.

I know scientists and researchers who are so passionate about the work they do that they still come into the lab each day, even after they retire.  That is employee engagement!  That is what employers dream of!  But that is commitment to the work itself, to the profession, rather than to a specific organisation.

What kind of worker are you?  And how can an employer best capture that passion and commitment from its employees (or freelance associates, for that matter)?


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Can the global markets be moral?

There’s been quite a bit of talk lately about ‘happiness economics’ (James Naughtie on Radio 4, Professor Michael Sandel presenting the set of Reith Lectures).  When I first heard the term I thought: ‘ Oh, no, this is another of those hip-hip-hurrah movements of the you’ve-got-the-right-to-and-should-be-happy-all-the-time type!’  But actually, this does not refer to the supposed happiness you will feel once you have consumed, acquired, possessed or done whatever the advertisers want to sell you.  Instead, this is about something that has become deeply unfashionable in recent years, namely thinking about other people and their general well-being.

It’s also about reintroducing the concept of ethics and values into the marketplace.  It’s about putting paid to the myth that markets are pure mechanisms that have no effect on the people and goods with which they operate.  It’s about acknowledging that prosperity and consumption may not make us as happy as perceived fairness and equality.

I never thought I would catch myself saying this.  I come from Romania and have spent a large chunk of my childhood under Communism, so I certainly embraced the ‘free market economy’ with gusto when it became available to us.  Ah, the freedom to be selfish, to operate in a world where self-interest and self-development is admired rather than regarded with suspicion!  So much better than to be a socialist do-gooder!  Admittedly, how could anyone take socialist ideals seriously while living in a society where they were trumpeted in every publication yet being cynically trampled underfoot in practice?

I am not convinced that Denmark is quite the perfect model of contentment and of a just, egalitarian society (and Naughtie does point out some of his concerns in that respect, see http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_8166000/8166798.stm ).  Even if it were, is it a model that poorer, more diverse, less ‘obedient’  countries can truly emulate?

  I liked Michael Sandel’s comment at


 that it is all too easy to settle for efficiency when it comes to markets, because it is the sort of thing that will offend no one.  However, what we should be having, he argues, are robust debates and moral arguments, welcoming all sorts of new and previously marginalised voices.  It’s time to address some of the big ethical questions about globalisation, instead of relying on the markets to muddle through.

Is it possible to make markets more moral?  Is it possible to make bankers more aware of the effect they are having on individual people?  Can we harness greed and self-interest for the common good?

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